Before Maria Eugenia Gold redeemed the reputation of the dodo bird, she was a little girl who dreamed about the extinct world of dinosaurs, and their images were plastered all over her bedroom wall.
But recently, she and her team have discovered new evidence suggesting a general misconception concerning dodo birds — the descendants of a group of dinosaurs called maniraptoran theropods — may be wrong.
Raphus cucullatus, more commonly known as the dodo, was a 3-foot, 40-pound flightless bird that was native to one island — Mauritius, near the island of Madagascar.
These dodos were infamously fearless of human explorers who arrived at Mauritius in 1581, the first significant predator the birds had ever encountered on their isolated home. The affable personality of the dodo made the birds vulnerable to human hunting, as well as predators, such as dogs and cats, that were introduced to the island by the explorers. By the end of the following century, the much-too-friendly dodo population was officially wiped out.
“The dodo is embedded in popular culture,” Gold said in an email. “It’s famous for its extinction and for being dumb. I wanted to study it because of its infamy and see if I could learn anything about its biology.”
Gold’s findings may have freed the dodo from popular culture infamy forever.
By publishing a study last February in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, Gold challenged the long-held belief that dodo birds were stupid and instead proposed that the dodo bird might have been about as smart as the common pigeon.
Her research sparked headlines in The Washington Post, Forbes and History Channel website, ranging from “Dodos: Smarter Than Most People Think” to “Were dodos as dumb as they looked? New research suggests otherwise.”
Gold used CT imaging to compare the endocast, a mold of a cranial cavity, of a rare preserved dodo skull from London’s Natural History Museum with the endocasts of seven pigeon species, the dodo’s closest living relative. She discovered the size of the dodo’s brain in relation to its body size is actually similar to that of a pigeon, a fairly intelligent bird that has the capacity to be trained.
The pivotal moment was when Gold finally found evidence that dodo birds weren’t as dumb as widely perceived.
“It was an exciting discovery,” she said via email. “Once I had the data, the analysis was very quick. Having all of that work result in the dodo’s brain size being proportional to its body size was really neat.”
Julian Pender Hume, an English avian paleontologist and artist who co-authored the critically acclaimed book “Lost Land of the Dodo” published in 2007, also believes that the dodo does not deserve its reputation.
“The use of the word ‘stupid’ is a misnomer here, and has been completely taken out of context,” Hume said in an email. “Early visitors to Mauritius thought it stupid because it was fearless, and would not try and escape even when attacked with clubs and guns. This is classic naivety, where an animal does not recognise humans as a threat.”
Gold was a curious young child. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she was raised in Maryland by her economist father and meteorologist mother.
“I’ve been interested in dinosaurs my whole life,” Gold said in an email. “They are fascinating animals and being able to understand how they lived is exciting.”
Pouring over encyclopedias and news clippings, Gold wanted to learn as much as she could about dinosaurs and other extinct creatures. She supplemented her growing knowledge with news articles from her family in Argentina. As Gold continued to receive clips about the latest South American fossil discoveries from these relatives, her family gradually began to understand that Gold’s interest had turned into a passion.
“They are amazing creatures that were very diverse in the Mesozoic and are even more diverse now in the form of birds,” Gold noted about dinosaurs.
Years later, she would go on to earn her Ph.D. from the American Museum of Natural History’s Richard Gilder Graduate School — the first Ph.D.-granting program for any museum located in the Western Hemisphere — unearth dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert and teach human anatomy to medical students at Stony Brook University’s Department of Anatomical Sciences.
“She’s a very careful and very thorough scientist,” said Eric Wilberg, Gold’s colleague at Stony Brook who met her while they were graduate students at the University of Iowa. “And she’s very passionate about what she works on.”